Thursday, June 26, 2008

I'm a Seoul Man!

Nils Lofgren--"Mr. Soul" (mp3)
The Sheds--"All You Need" (mp3)

I was very proud of myself on Monday. I had a free afternoon after teaching in the morning and made the decision to strike out like Lewis and Clark, like Huck Finn, like everything American for new territory.

So I got on the subway. You know, of course, that I have not mastered Korean in the three days I've been here. Sometimes, I can remember how to say 'Thank You.' I had a tenuous map, and that was it. After fortifying myself with a pseudo-Austrian lunch of a sandwich and lemonade, I walked down the steps with a clear goal in mind: Namdaemun Market. This is the premiere market in the country. Not only do I like markets, but this one was across the river, requiring a transfer from one subway line to another.

I was probably 3-4 stops into my trip, after successfully figuring out how to buy a ticket (which cost 1100 won for those interested) when I realized that I was halfway around the world and that not one person on this planet who knows me knew where I was. Not one. And that probably included me. My heart pounded a bit.

But then I kind of laughed to myself and felt oddly refreshed by the thought. The other thing that had me pondering my place in this world was the realization that I was the only white person around. This situation would continue on both the trip and the trip back and during my time at the market. It's pretty cool. You're aware of it. You realize that occasionally people are looking at you on the subway, that some of the people at the market are looking at you as an easy mark because you aren't like the rest. You have two choices when you are the only white person: either you feel white and out of place or, as you walk around looking through your viewfinder, you kind of forget that you are white because everything around you that is happening is Asian. I experienced both.

Namdaemun Market is like no place I've ever been. A mass of humanity, a mass of streets, everything possibly legally for sale, and maybe some things that aren't. In the center of it all, a man with no legs, but with the stumps protected from the ground by a rubber tarp as he drags himself around on a plywood board with rollers, chest down, no more than 3 inches from the ground, plays various cassette songs as he struggles through the market collecting money. Among the many clothing stands with Hello Kitty knock-offs, shoes, and all kinds of women's clothing and lingerie sit the food stands. Five or six stalls with huge glass jars that look like they're filled with honey and maybe a mandrake root. (my students tell me they are filled with ginseng liquor). Tubs of eels and turtles for sale, the eels slithering and squirming all over each other, the turtles with their heads yearning for the surface, neither group realizing they will be tonight's meal somewhere. Glass cases with smoked half-heads of pigs and piles of smaller portions of smoked pig carcasses. Bowls and bowls of the largest raspberries and cherries you've ever seen. If you pause, the vendor will approach to try to make a sale. A few know to say "Hello, how are you?" All know that the only American in the market is a prime customer. Down the alley noodle shops with plastic walls serve an overflow of customers. Farther down the street a crowd gathers around a man who pulls up with a large square wooden cart filled with stacks and stacks and stacks of men's dress pants that appear to sell for no more than a few thousand won. And everywhere, the scooters and motorbikes, inching or speeding their ways through an opening in the crowd, bringing fresh supplies of souvenirs and other wares to the market stalls.

I get a few things for the girls, but I start to get a little nervous about finding my way home. But I will be back.

The pictures above to do represent the market, they are just a couple of random Korea shots. "Mr. Soul" is from Nils Lofgren's new cd of Neil Young covers, available at his website. The Sheds remain the best unsigned band in America, though all of their songs are available for download at their website.


John said...

OK, Robert-san, tell the provincial Americans what 1 won is equal to in the increasingly decreasingly powerful American dollar. I'm also wanting you to rescue a few dozen turtles and bring them back for our aquarium; the eels, not so much. Excellent to have this blog to keep us connected, halfway around the world. Gotta love the modern age. Also, the news here is reporting that North Korea will be exploding their nuclear reactor on live TV tomorrow; what's the reaction from the South K? And one more thing--what, if anything, do the S Koreans think of the American election? Rock on, Robert E. Lee's horse...(Traveler).


Billy said...

So cool. Sooo freakin' cool. Personally, I only ever got to feel that sense of being where no one would ever find me -- but even then I had Chet.

For some reason -- maybe 'cuz I'm not there -- freaky Asian food seems more squirm-inducing than freaky African food. What's the wackiest stuff you've ingested? How much is a won? How many people could even help you if they wanted to with that whole language barrier thing? So many questions!

Bob said...

1000 won = 1 dollar

Freakiest food so far is something minor: Tommy bought these octopus chips that smell like a stale fish market, like the oldest fish you've ever smelled. They didn't taste too good neither. But I ate one.

Here are a couple of quick stories for your edification:

We continue to act like crazy foreigners who don't quite get it. Two days ago, on the anniversary of the start of the Korean War, there were all of these flower and ribbon wreaths out in front of this building across the street. I theorized that they were honoring war dead; Tommy thought it was a new club opening or something. So I said, "Well, I'll just go ask these women." I approached these older women on the street and asked my questions. They just screamed "No" and ran away.

Yesterday, Tommy and I walked into a steakhouse on the way home from work, just to look at the menu. It was kind of dark, but the door was open. One man came up to us and Tommy gestured that we wanted to see a menu. Immediately, the man aroused the napping waitstaff. Within seconds, all of the lights were on, piped music began to play, and the waiters were readying a table for us. Tommy kept saying, "No, no, come back tomorrow" but they never really got it, even though they kept saying "yes," and even as we started walking out the door, the man kept pointing to a table.

Tommy D said...

wait till he tries the roasted cocoon. boys, tonight we head out to the Itaewon area for some schnitzel at an authentic Austrian restaurant (real Austrian chef), beers at various bars, a game or two of Golden Tee and a scoop of ColdStone Creamery to top it off (thank God for globalization)...maybe a massage too. How about Spring Break Seoul 2009? Birry, the beautiful women of Seoul would absolutely love you, and there's a casino within walking distance. Nice noodles too.

Daytimerush said...


You can be like Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations. I watch that show all of the time and dream about being able to see, smell, and taste all of that crazy and delicious food/drink. I hope you are keeping a journal! I want details.

Bob said...

Audrey, we ate the chicken off the street tonight from a vendor. Bird flu be damned. It was a night of way too drunk Korean women, Golden Tee, Texas Holdem (for Tommy) and trying to stay sane in Itaewon, the western area. We ate chicken off the street tonight--hot, spicy, barely cooked. He sent us away for 10 minutes until it was cooked enough. Since we're exploring the "authentic" Seoul tomorrow, I'll be disappointed if I don't have massive food poisoning by Monday morning.

But, the Austrian food we ate tonight was superb, as was the Japanese we had for lunch.

Bob said...

P.S. Tommy is right; Billy would not have a chance over here. The women are beautiful, the drinking is rampant, and the sexual mores vary by area, mostly in Billy's favor. I can just picture a crowd of Korean women giggling around Billy as they take another drink of Soju.

Daytimerush said...

Billy will be begging for a job next year!
My dad spent three years in Korea in his early 20's. He STILL talks about the women!!! I probably have some half-siblings over there.

John said...

Bob and Tommy,

Highly sexualized women who like to drink? Send me pictures of the future Mrs. Lambert...

Billy said...

Your Honor, in an attempt to help this post break our comment record, I would like to defend my own honor, Your Honor.

Although my good looks and magnetic personality might make it appear as if I regularly bed women -- OK, my level of bawdy randiness might also contribute -- I'm quite the Boy Scout.

Not, like, interested in boys. I mean... well you know what I mean. But just so I know, what kind of "sexual mores" are MY kind of sexual mores? (So I can be sure to include it on

Bob said...

Billy, the "mores" are perfect for your split personality--the upstanding Korean women are very reserved, slow to date, slow in everything, good Christian women. The women of Itaewon would do well on Bourbon Street.

These guys we were hanging out with last night were also discussing the pros/cons of Filipino women. Apparently, if you marry a Filipino woman, you really do marry the family in every way possible. And if you make the woman angry, it is literally like a month before she will have anything to do with you again. The Phillipines, I guess, is where you get a mail-order bride; one of these guy's brothers had just married one.

Anonymous said...

White people like being the only white person in an ethnic place!!

Anonymous said...

that's kathleen btw

Bob said...

Yes, they do. But if you have some confidence, I'm thinking that anyone likes being the only one of their kind in any particular place. As for Seoul, I have now had that same experience in both large and small ways many more times.